- Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks by Katharine Capshaw
To recognize that Katharine Capshaw’s Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks is a timely addition to the study of children’s literature and culture, visual studies, and African American history, one need only consider that its publication release date coincided with mass protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and in 140 cities nationwide, sparked by the Saint Louis County grand jury’s refusal to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown in August 2014. As newscasters, political pundits, and grassroots activists debated the civil rights status of African Americans under the aegis of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, contrasting photographs of Michael Brown—one in which he poses in his high school graduation regalia and another in which he looms over the viewer, wearing baggy trousers and holding his hand in what appears to be a gang sign—were referenced repeatedly. Brown’s detractors pointed to the latter photograph as evidence of the teenager’s culpability in his own death, whereas civil rights advocates used the former photograph to link the concepts of innocence and academic accomplishment to an African American subject.
Given that the advent of photography took place at a time when the United States was still a slaveholding nation, photographic images of African Americans, especially those created for mass consumption, have often participated in what Capshaw terms “degradations and elisions of black character” (272). As such, civil rights era African American authors and artists attempted to reconceptualize black identity, especially by shaping visual narratives related to childhood, thus encouraging young readers to become “active interpreters of images and ideas,” in an ongoing struggle for justice (xxiv). As Capshaw demonstrates, what is at stake in the development of the African American photobook tradition is a desire to recast the status of African American children in the national imagination, an act that involves as much fortitude as that demonstrated by the Little Rock Nine or by the Selma freedom marchers. According to Capshaw, “to represent an innocent black child is an act of resistance in and of itself: it permits resistance to racist systems of power that malign and distort blackness through caricature; it enables resistance to the exclusion of black childhood from the terrain of childhood innocence; and it [End Page 222] allows black adults and children a renewed faith in the power of childhood to remake social relations” (29).
Capshaw begins Civil Rights Childhood by providing a “capacious” definition of the children’s photobook as “a book with a child readership that sequences images and attaches that sequence to a narrative, whether fictional or nonfictional” (xiii). By broadening the scope of her inquiry to this extent, Capshaw is able to survey a wide range of text types designed to engage young readers with contemporary political and cultural realities through the medium of photography. Capshaw’s study proceeds chronologically from the 1944 publication of Jane Dabney Shackelford’s My Happy Days, a fictionalized account of a day in the life of a young African American student from Terre Haute, Indiana, meant to encourage support of friendship among the races in the years just prior to school desegregation, through Carole Boston Weatherford’s 2007 text Birmingham, 1963, a photobook that is accompanied by poetic exposition and highly stylized renderings of the familiar photographs of the four young girls who were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, repurposed to emphasize to contemporary readers that civil rights activism remains an ongoing project.
The first two chapters of Civil Rights Childhood focus primarily on children’s photobooks created before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling that ushered in the civil rights movement. Forced to “tread lightly when articulating the need for social change” (xxiii), Shackelford in My Happy Days and Ellen Tarry in her 1946 My Dog Rinty depict young African American protagonists who invite the reader along as they interact with family, neighbors, and most importantly, friends...